He may be on the verge of mid-career, but Ron Miles is still having growth spurts, as any good artist must. The Denver trumpeter's compelling new collection of seven originals, Laughing Barrel, deploys a full-throated quartet to some vivid new regions of the jazz frontier, and none of the players shies away from exploration. Inside the stately cool of Miles's playing -- for years he's tilted toward the middle register and the medium tempo -- there now rages a storm of abrupt mood swings, rhythmic ferment and harmonic complexity. Miles's placid surfaces can fool you; underneath, his insatiable curiosity and keen intellect are hard at work, reshaping our conceptions.
Miles's collaborators here include Denver-based drummer Rudy Royston, who's among the most musical of all percussionists; the nimble, fluid bassist Anthony Cox; and a versatile, forward-looking guitarist named Brandon Ross, who comes out of Brooklyn's cutting-edge music scene. As conversant with Hendrixian pitch modulation and the fevers of prog metal as he is with the swift, single-note solo lines of past jazz masters, Ross brings some startling new colors to the landscape. On "New Breed Leader" (a bow to Wayne Shorter), the band transforms the conventions of modal bop with some beautifully conceived guitar overdrive, and that propels Miles to a free-jazz flight reminiscent of Lester Bowie or Bill Dixon. The open-ended "Jesus Loves Me," by contrast, expands a head suggesting "Afro-Blue" into a surge of collective improvisation. The lilting, playful "Sunday Best" embraces Western Americana in the manner of Oliver Nelson's classic "Hoe Down." Miles rides the range; Ross builds a witty acoustic solo enlivened by some distinctive postmodern twang.
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Laughing Barrel (a reference, via Ralph Ellison, to the device by which slaves once muffled their forbidden laughter) is a fitting sequel to Miles's first release for the Boulder-based Sterling Circle label -- last year's widely-praised Heaven, a pristine array of duets with guitarist Bill Frisell. Farther-reaching and more experimental, the new disc gets beyond the the genre-bending tricks and fusion gimmicks now so much in vogue among new-wave jazz artists: Miles's quartet work is a fully integrated amalgam of styles, old and new and never-before-heard, that reflects not only fresh directions in music, but -- dare we say it -- the humors and anxieties of our time. Having come into the light of the national jazz scene, Miles just keeps turning up the wattage.